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The Cynic's Handbook

from Smelling Dogs by Tom Robinson

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From "A Young Person's Guide To The Music Industry"


The music industry only ever helps those who help themselves - it's no use waiting for a talent scout from Sony Music or EMI to wave a magic wand and turn you into a pop sensation overnight - it just doesn't happen. For most of us the only realistic hope is to set about creating a momentum and excitement of our own quite independently from the Biz or national media. Take the attitude that you're going to make it anyway - if someone chooses to pick up on you and help you on your way, fine - if not, it's their loss. Once you've got a buzz happening around you, the music industry will beat a path to your door in any case.

It will take time. Whatever happens, you won't suddenly achieve stardom in the next twelve months, and it might take 12 years - ask Chris Rea. You must want success enough not to care how long it takes so long as you get there. If you're in a real hurry, try a different career. Of course, things might happen very rapidly indeed, but never count on it.

Let's take for granted you've already got ambition and some musical ability - although an excess of the latter can hinder as much as it helps. By far the most important factor in a successful artist's career has to do with identity and focus - in a word, PACKAGING - the one area musicians most often neglect. The world is full of "nice" songwriters with synths or acoustic guitars scribbling ditties about their love life or social injustice while they wait for someone to discover them.

Why should anyone come to your gigs or buy your albums - what's in it for them ? Because you play nice music ? Because you're a nice person ? Forget it. People choose music like they choose their clothes - to express an identity. For music fans, wearing a Prodigy T-shirt or getting a Limp Biskit tattoo is a public statement about who they are. Others impress their friends with Pavarotti or Sting CDs at a dinner party, while Billy Bragg has always carefully packaged himself for people who loathe packaging...

There are lots of reasons why people become fans & follow a band - sex, rebellion, snobbery, fashion, loneliness, alienation - sometimes even to show they appreciate great musicianship, though that comes pretty low on the list. Yes, I know you're talented, but almost nobody will give a flying fuck about that until you get this other stuff right first.

The key question to answer honestly about your music is: "Who would want it - and why ?" Don't rely on praise from friends and family. To make it, you have to be able to win and nurture an audience of your own from scratch - whether by making indie singles in a bedroom or gigging round every pub, club and dive that will have you. The competition is ferocious, and if you don't want to succeed more than any other single thing in the whole world, there's plenty of others who do. And to succeed you have to become a cause, an "in thing" that people passionately want to belong to: who's going to spend their last couple of quid on something tame or ordinary ?

To stand out from the other hundreds of groups you HAVE to know your target audience and pitch accordingly, focussing every aspect of what you do. This doesn't involve abandoning your principles, just defining them. Most successful artists simply pick an aspect of themselves that's true, simplify it, amplify it and then make music to match - a total package that hits their intended audience between the eyes. Name, clothes, image, attitude, style, lyrics, artwork and music all add up to a clearly defined identity. Be as radical and daring as you like: in fact be more radical and daring than you think you can possibly get away with. Take chances, be risky, get remembered. Actual originality isn't essential - just look at the charts - but conviction is. Whatever you do, it has to be very, very real.

Finally, a short questionnaire:

Have you made demo recordings ? If so, why ?
To persuade an impoverished indie label to spend cash recording you?
To get gigs at the local pub ?
For a bit of a laugh ?
To sell at gigs ?
Because you're a true Artist and you're driven to express yourself ?
To convince someone at Sony Music you're the next Radiohead ?

What level of success are you aiming for eventually?
Playing the local pub ?
Playing the Marquee ?
Playing Hammersmith Apollo ?
Playing Madison Square Garden ?

What kind of record sales do you plan to achieve ?
Five thousand ?
Five hundred thousand ?
Five hundred ?
Five million ?

Do you see yourself eventually becoming the next
Spice Girls ?
Dagmar Krause ? (who ?)
Marianne Faithfull ?
Suzanne Vega ?
Madonna ?

These questions are vital. Until you get concrete ideas of what you're aiming for, you can't hope to plan a route. If you loathe compromise and sound like The Fall, there's no point choosing the greedy answers. If you're after Prince's crown, sharpen up accordingly.


from Smelling Dogs, released January 1, 2001


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Tom Robinson London, UK

Tom Robinson (b.1950) is a UK songwriter & broadcaster first known in the 70s as an anti-racist and LGBT campaigner. He released 19 albums between 1975-2001 with various bands and has co-written songs with Elton John, Peter Gabriel, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. He's an award-winning presenter at BBC Radio 6 Music, and released Only The Now (his first album in 19 years) in October 2015. ... more

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